109 Ludlow Street
Every time I ask about my great-grandfather
relatives deny knowing anything--
Except that his name was Michael
and he died from a heart attack
when my Bubby was sixteen.
What I know of him
are six stolen photographs
creased and slightly blurry.
He looks like Hitler, I told my mom.
Don’t say that! She scolded.
Rumors circulated that he came from somewhere in South America.
On my Bubby’s death bed I asked her if the rumors of her dad rang true.
I think she slightly shook her head, but I wouldn’t swear to it.
Maybe someone made it up to explain why she was named Juanita
Then a paper surfaced:
Naturalization Certificate #1423062
Immigrated from Russia through Ellis Island
On May 5, 1920
Including a New York City address
Down East Broadway, down Pike, down Canal
Turning left on Ludlow
Just past Delancey
Before Katz’s Deli on the corner of Houston
Eighty-two years later
The air is still bitter
I am not wearing a jacket
The sky is white
There is more graffiti than people
I find the apartment building
Rising six stories above a tailor shop
Cross the street to stand closer to these bricks
Step in front of an oncoming car and jump back
Look at its license plate—my initials.
Coincidence constantly mocks me.
I am in the same doorway
On the same steps
My face pushed up against
The same dirty glass window
A pigeon lands at my feet
and cocks its head at the fire escape ladders
The same way I do
I tell it I love its wings
I confess to the bird
What’s hidden behind walls
And dragged behind boats
The city’s at a standstill.
Michael found Anne.
She is my namesake.
I’m gonna keep walking
And whispering to birds
Someday I will be an ancestor.
A few weeks ago I read the following quote on one of my best friend's facebook profile: "Define yourself radically as one beloved by God. This is the true self. Every other identity is an illusion." After reading it, I left her a note saying that I wasn't trying to stir controversy but that I don't see the way I define myself as an illusion just because I don't really identify with God. I couldn't put my thoughts into more words than that at the time, but I started to think about it more later. If I say I don't identify with "God" or "God's love" or whatever, then what or who can I say I do identify with? I mean, to me, that question has an infinite number of answers. But I've known since age 11 that my best friends and I don't quite see eye to eye when it comes to this religious stuff, and that we bring sometimes polar opposite opinions/beliefs to the table. The conclusion I came to is that I identify myself with my ancestors...or at least I strive to find an identity link within our diminishing family tree.
The other night I spent a few hours at the Borders in Hyde Park flipping through travel magazines. Doing that is bittersweet. It excites me to see pictures and think about all the places I still can look forward to discovering, yet it kind of bums me out because I don't really know when the next time is that I'll get to do major traveling again. But anyway, I was looking at Condé Nast something or other, and the main story in there was all about Bucharest and how Romania will be joining the European Union. This reignited my intense interest in planning a "return to my roots" jaunt around Eastern Europe...specifically Romania, Hungary and Poland. Romania is the one country that I know the exact town that my family came from: Panciu (pronounced: Pon-chu....as my grandpa and dad would respond: "i'm gonna pon-chu!") Finding out that this country is going to join the E.U. made me want to quit my job and go over there right now. I want to see this country before it homogenizes; I want to see this country as it was when my ancestors called it "home" (or whatever "home" is in Yiddish).
I think it is really important to know where you come from, to know that you are here because your parents had you, your grandparents had them, your great-grandparents had them, and so on and so on. I didn't realize how important this ancestral knowledge was to me until March 19, 2000, the day my Bubby ("grandmother" in Yiddish) died. As I referenced in the poem, I didn't ask soon enough about why the heck she was named Juanita or anything about our shared ancestors. Later that same year my uncle died in October and my Grandma died in December. My Zadie ("grandfather" in Yiddish) had already passed away when I was 7. So I never got to ask him about his experiences as a Marine in WWII, witnessing the flag being raised at Iwo Jima...or how he fell in love with my Bubby...or tell him that I followed in his photographic footsteps.
Losing all these people made me reevaluate a lot of things. I felt secure in who I was, and yet I was clueless to my past. Who were these people that preceded me and how did I end up where I am today? I became obsessed with documenting my last remaining grandparent, Grandpa Joe (my dad's dad). Every time we'd drive out to Rockford I'd bring along an available notebook and frantically write down everything he said. Sometimes I even brought my video camera and recorded our visits. I mean most of it was silly stuff--he convinced himself he was blind for the last few years of his life, so a lot of what I wrote down was in reference to the hilarity that ensued from that. But, I did get some valid information as well, such as the Panciu clue. Obviously that's just one piece of the identity puzzle, from one grandparent out of the millions of things I could have asked the rest of them before their time was up...but it's a puzzle piece that I treasure.
Grandpa Joe died February 11, 2005 (2/11...adding to the worst days in my life almost always falling on an 11th) and was buried on Valentine's Day (thus continuing my string of awful Valentines Days)
I want to see the world. I dream of going on African safaris and taking my sister to Iceland. But the number one trip I want to take is this leap back in time to these mysterious, ancestral lands. Now I just need to find the funds, and once that's covered I am determined to set aside the time....
(the photo doesn't necessarily directly relate to this posting, but the pictures i took when i found 109 Ludlow are at my parent's house...for some reason this photo seemed the most appropriate out of anything i have on my computer here...i took it of my dad almost a year ago when we went to Aruba over New Years. the last morning we were there he and i and my sister got up before the sun and took our rented Jeep on one last off-roading adventure into the uninhabited areas of the island. i took this picture while standing in the entrance of a cave. 1/6/06)